The Lib Dem vote share: not always the best guide to how successful the Lib Dems have been…

An important point, with graph to match, from PoliticalBetting’s Mike Smithson:

To illustrate the point further:

1992 general election:
Lib Dems won 5,999,384 votes, a vote-share of 17.8%, with 20 MPs elected
1997 general election:
Lib Dems won 5,242,947 votes, a vote-share of 16.8%, with 46 MPs elected.

Outcome: we lost votes and more than doubled our number of seats.

2005 general election:
Lib Dems won 5,985,454 votes, a vote-share of 22.1%, with 62 MPs elected.
2010 general election:
Lib Dems won 6,836,248 votes, a vote-share of 23.0%, with 57 MPs elected.

Outcome: we gained almost a million votes and lost five seats in the process.

Given the historic nature of the Coalition, history is not necessarily the best guide to the 2015 general election.

However, the lack of correlation between the size of the Lib Dem vote and the number of seats the party wins should also give those who write off the party more than a little pause for thought.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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  • I’ve paused for thought, but I can’t see how the projected 10% voting intention could still give you 50+ seats.

  • When u going wake up getting into bed with Tories spoke your doom last time and it will this time
    and you lost the student vote you gained by breaking a specific promises to them

  • “Except the polls aren’t a projection. They’re a snapshot of current intention.”

    The number of seats estimate is a projection based on the current polling . How many seats do you think 10% will give the Lib Dems, or, more optimistically, 13% ?

  • The correlation with the difference between the Con and LD vote shares is much better, obviously reflecting the fact that the Tories are the main opponents in the majority of LD seats:

    2005: 10.3% 62 seats
    2010: 13.1% 57 seats
    2001: 13.4% 52 seats
    1997: 13.9% 46 seats
    1987: 19.6% 22 seats
    1992: 24.1% 20 seats

    UK Polling Report’s polling average currently has that difference at 22%. If you prefer ICM, the most recent figure was 19%.

  • Stephen Tall 4th Dec '12 - 9:05pm

    @ Chris

    But in your figures you’re comparing a mid-term position (22% / 19% gap between Tories and Lib Dems) with actual general election results. I’m sure you realise that’s a flaky comparison.

    For example, In November 2007 (the same point in the Parliament as we are today) the poll average showed the Tories on 41% and the Lib Dems on 16%, a difference of 25% – bigger in fact than the gap is today. The result in May 2010 was, as you show, a 13% gap between the two parties. That perhaps shows the danger of over-reading mid-term opinion polls.

  • Stephen Tall

    I think you are being over critical as Chris has made a point that his ‘correlation’ looks more robust than the one you made. He also pointed out the current poll situation which is the only thing we have to go on at the moment

    You also continue, as others on here do, to make a false comparison between mid-term polling during previous Parliaments and this one. The convention has been that your part drops between elections because of lack of visibility and the fact that your core vote is low and is made up of ‘protests’. With you know in Government there is a likelihood that the party is not being ignored, rather that there is a conscious dislike that will stay until the election

    You can challenge Chris’s assertions if you want but your original post is based on just as, if not more so, flimsy evidence

  • “But in your figures you’re comparing a mid-term position (22% / 19% gap between Tories and Lib Dems) with actual general election results. I’m sure you realise that’s a flaky comparison.”

    Obviously there are two separate aspects here.

    One is whether the Lib Dem vote share at general elections is in itself a good determinant of the number of seats won by the Lib Dems. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t a very good one, because the vote shares of the other parties are also important. But the figures show that the Tory/LD gap is a reasonably good determinant – though of course for a given Tory/LD gap it is much worse for the Lib Dems to be at 10% than at 20%, because in some seats the contest is not with the Tories but with Labour or other parties.

    The other aspect is whether the polls tell us anything useful. Obviously they don’t tell us what’s going to happen in 2015, but they do give us the best indication of the current state of party support. It seems perverse to ignore the information when it’s there. (Though if your prime concern is party morale I can understand you may wish to.)

    Obviously the Tory/LD gap may change by 2015. But I don’t see any particular reason to expect it to narrow. One thing that is rather striking is how stable the Lib Dem poll rating has been for the last two years – and how little it has depended on the popularity of the government as a whole. I’d imagine quite a lot of people would expect the Tories to do somewhat better than 32% at the next election. But who can tell?

  • Stephe Tall

    I think Vhris makes another fair point in his last post. My guess is that the Tories will edge up to around 35% minimum at the next election as some UKIP voters return. I also think the LD will be polling at the early 90s level of around 15% max (I think I am being generous here as well)

    This is all guesswork but I can see where Tory votes come from more than where I can see LD votes come from. Some way you will need to caprute the anti-Toy vote in the south, either from tactical Labour or from left-leaning others. I fail to see how this will happen to any great extent under the current leadership – or at least the extent required to poll above 15%

  • Paul in Twickenham 5th Dec '12 - 7:10am

    As others have noted, the Liberal Democrats have been polling at about 10% (on the BBC poll of polls) for two years now – the party’s support in this aggregated poll fell to 10% in early December 2010 and has bobbled around that level ever since then. The Tory vote has fallen recently – presumably driven by the surge in support for UKIP and a general disenchantment with the government – but the difference remains around 22%.

    The Liberal Democrats spent some time arguing that support would return as the economy improved and the party would be rewarded for making “tough” decisions.

    But now George Osborne has stated that he does not see the prospect of ending the current austerity programme until at least 2018. He has all but said that the economy will remain moribund for many years to come. Those “sunlit uplands” are looking further away than ever.

    So the Liberal Democrats enter the mid-point of the parliament at 10% in the polls, with no prospect of seeing meaningful economic growth before the next election, with a set of manifesto promises that were promptly abandoned at the first sniff of power (consider the hay that Labour will make with that in 2015), with the most unpopular leader since Michael Foot, with a massive loss of local councillors and local delivery networks that would be expected to do the ground work at the next election…

    But of course “it’s a well known fact” that the Lib Dem poll ratings always improve as we get closer to an election…

  • My thoughts exactly. I don’t feel we’ll do too badly next time because we’re not like Labour or the Tories – we don’t win or lose seats just on the tide of the popular vote (as this piece explains) – and where we have MPs our local vote is holding up. We will lose votes massively, I suspect, in areas where they won’t matter – in seats we don’t hold and have never held – but that’s won’t effect the size of our parliamentary party.

  • The LibDems are now in this coalition, what has happened has been done. What we need to do now is instead of playing with opinion poll statistics is to promote our unique identity. Closing the gap with a the Tories: a party which is unpopular is actually no comfort.
    However, if we can regain the left learning vote we lost over the tuition fees event, we will have turned the corner. How?
    For example, the Tories propose spying on citizens activities on the Internet. Nick Clegg has rightly opposed this intrusion into our privacy . The Tory home secretary has branded those that oppose her bill…….. terrorist? where have we heard that one before?
    Isn’t this sort of attack on civil liberties what Liberals should be fighting against. It is core to our principles enough to defeat the Tories and regain the left agenda?
    The Tories have shown themselves to be failures on capitalism, and there is a real danger that inflation could return to be the problem that existed in the 1970s. Meanwhile, is the Labour party proposing any different?
    All said, We need to take the message as a party to the people and mobilise a ground swell of people to this, our cause.

  • David Allen 5th Dec '12 - 12:24pm

    Lib Dem polling figures have always risen at election time. Because the public, who have (normally) seen very little of the Lib Dems since the previous election, are now exposed to their new faces and fresh ideas. Cleggmania was a particularly extreme version of this transient reaction, but Kennedy in 2005 and Ashdown before him similarly gained late support for novel manifesto proposals.

    Except that this time is different. The public has seen more than it wants to of Clegg. He is not a fresh face. He cannot credibly offer much in the way of new ideas. Why should our figures rise?

    I fear that they will fall. That 10% of people who still tell the pollsters that they will vote Lib Dem include many who simply couldn’t think of a better answer, when polled, than to say that they will do what they did last time. In the recent byelections, those people had longer to think about what to do. Some of them stayed at home in disgust, others looked around and found parties such as the Greens or UKIP. So our vote was worse than the polls predicted. The same could happen at the next GE.

  • “For example, the Tories propose spying on citizens activities on the Internet. Nick Clegg has rightly opposed this intrusion into our privacy .”


    In fact, Nick Clegg agreed the policy, and has defended it publicly. He is now, finally, reported to be having second thoughts.

  • The Lib Dems always do better in mid-term local elections than they do in general elections. If my memory serves me correctly you received 16% of the vote in the last local elections. So, the final figure is likely to be between the 10% in the opinion polls and the 16% in the locals, given that the poll share hasn’t shifted at all since December 2010.

    Tuition fees crystallised the Lib Dem voting intention share – the die-hards and those on the right still intend to vote Lib Dem, but most of everyone else won’t. If you look at the long term voting figures for the Lib Dems, around two-thirds of those that appear to want to now vote differently were long-term supporters and the other third were disaffected Labour voters.

    In Lib Dem-Tory marginals it is often the case that the Lib Dem vote is buoyed by tactical Labour voters. A small proportion of whom could well decide to punish the Lib Dems, vote Labour, and allow the Tory to win. In Lib Dem-Labour marginals, Labour will obviously win. You will be squeezed both ways and will be doing well to retain half your seats, unless a large issue comes up in the next couple of years that allows Clegg to repaint himself and his party. However, given where his natural instincts lie, this is very unlikely to happen.

  • paul barker 5th Dec '12 - 1:41pm

    @David Allen, yes libdem support has always risen at general elections, no we dont know why that is. Various explanations have been put forward but there is no way to test them. The explanation you give is popular but that doesnt make it right.
    Another possible theory is that most voters dont see any elections other than General Elections as important (voting turnout would suppoert that idea) & dont think hard or deeply about politics between times. This would produce both a reversion to 2 party tradition & protest voting for whoever is flavour of the month, The Greens in 1989, UKIP now.
    I would suggest that we are getting a double hit, once for the usual mid-term effect & again for being in government in a slump.

  • Charles Beaumont 5th Dec '12 - 1:50pm

    Anyone who has been supporting the Lib Dems for more than the past six months will know that there is a weak correlation between national vote share and parliamentary seats. However, it would be delusional to suggest that we’ll be able to cling on to all of our seats as we typically have very narrow majorities. So the only question is how many can we expect to lose? No point hazarding a guess but in losing seats we will be helping Labour to get an overall majority, bolstered by a situation in which they benefit from unreformed boundaries. Maybe the tiny number of Tories that currently accept the case for electoral reform will start to increase. But I doubt it.

  • Tony Dawson 5th Dec '12 - 7:08pm

    It strikes me that all these people asserting the output of their own crystal balls are talking without the benefit of crystal. 😉

    Chris’ correlation looks pretty impressive. His interpretation of the potential future outcome has weaker foundations but raises some relevant factors. Steven Tall’s original one-liner appears to be a bit ‘throwaway’ in comparison.

    Lib Dem performance in General Elections is primarily driven by constituency teams aided (or not) by the centre. Unless you live in one of the key seats concerned or have close links with people who do, you will have little idea how the various crucial factors which will determine the results there are playing out or we are likely to do as a result of the composite effect of those constituencies’ campaigns either now or at any time in the future.

  • paul barker 5th Dec '12 - 8:42pm

    How hard is it to compare like with like, ie take polls from one polling company, averaged over a month & compare that with 5 years ago ? Not very hard as I will demonstrate by doing it, back in about 10 minutes.

  • Paul barker

    How many times. Do you read other people’s posts?

    Go away and do your calculations if it makes you happy but the argument being made, is that there is no direct comparison with previous election cycles.

    You do not have to believe it but publishing these old numbers is not going to convince us

  • paul barker 5th Dec '12 - 9:13pm

    OK, I did it for ICM & yougov. Not much difference, one has us 4.5% down & the other 5%.
    That suggests we should get around 19 or 20% in 2015, if you think the situations are comparable.

  • paul barker 5th Dec '12 - 9:23pm

    I read other posts if they are short, see, I just read yours. Of course the 2 electoral cycles arent directly comparable, weve never been in government before; but that doesnt stop others comparing the polls now with the election in 2010. I am merely arguing that if you are going to take any notice of polls you should at least try to compare like with like, as far as possible.
    On the theme of the article, the correlation between our vote share & MP numbers is very weak, predicting how many MPs we will get is a mugs game.

  • Paul

    Could you explain your reasoning a bit more fully, please? How are you going from a comparison between the party’s popularity now and in 2007 to a prediction of its vote share in 2015? Or are you just pulling our legs?


    It is the same graph represented against an accurate scale.

    It says something quite different:
    (Year, Name, Share of votes, Seats, Share of seats)
    1983 SDP–Liberal Alliance 25.4% 23 3.5%
    1987 SDP–Liberal Alliance 22.6% 22 3.4%
    1992 Liberal Democrats 17.8% 20 3.1%
    1997 Liberal Democrats 16.7% 46 7.0%
    2001 Liberal Democrats 18.3% 52 7.9%
    2005 Liberal Democrats 22.1% 62 9.6%
    2010 Liberal Democrats 23.0% 57 8.8%

    It says that LibDems have closed the gap between the proportion of votes won and number of seats gained and a true representation of public opinion would see nearly three times as many LibDem MPs.

    Opposition to the government is opposition to the fact of the unbalanced parliament and therefore the unbalanced coalition. It is unbalanced because it underrepresents LibDems.

  • Tony Dawson 6th Dec '12 - 12:17am


    “It says that LibDems have closed the gap between the proportion of votes won and number of seats ”

    Actually no. It shows that happened till 1997. Since 1997, the gap has got bigger again.

  • Peter Watson 6th Dec '12 - 1:56am

    @paul barker
    “That suggests we should get around 19 or 20% in 2015, if you think the situations are comparable.”
    What about when we compare our mid-term performance in by-elections and local elections with the period 2005-2010? Apart from Scotland, where SNP picked up the anti-Labour vote, we generally increased our share in by-elections compared with the 2005 results. We are definitely in different territory now,and even a huge surge of former tory voters in Oldham and Saddleworth was not enough to take the seat in the early days of coalition.

    “the correlation between our vote share & MP numbers is very weak, predicting how many MPs we will get is a mugs game.” I completely agree. Electoral pacts (official or simply a tacit agreement between coalition partners to scale down the campaigning in some seats), the return of tactical voters, targetted campaigning in LD seats, and the power of incumbency might mean that a poor national performance still returns a large number of existing MPs though I cannot see where new ones would come from. Conversely, stay-at-home anti-tory tactical voters and targetted campaigning by Lib Dem opponents might lead to representation in the commons being even less proportional than now.

    Although it is not possible to predict the number of Lib Dem seats after 2015 based upon current polling of voting intention, I don’t think that the party can look at current polling figures and recent election results and feel comfortable or complacent. The figures show that the Lib Dem party is unpopular. If the party cannot address that lack of popularity, then I don’t see how it can be optimistic about future electoral success.

  • @Tony,
    actually that’s both irrelevant and inaccurate (my figures show we continued to reduce the democratic deficit until 2005).

    Mike Smithson is suggesting that growth in LibDem representation has outstripped growth in LibDem votes, and either that this morally justifies reasoning that LibDems should expect to return fewer MPs at the next General Election or provides practical justification to support LibDem optimism that opinion polls are irrelevant.

    Mike Smithson has lost a lot of credibility by reproducing his graph – measuring the historic proportion of our votes against actual numbers of our MPs is a false comparison which creates a distorted impression and misinforms the public debate.

    Mike Smithson is talking dangerous nonsense.

    Mike Smithson should be ashamed of himself – if he opposes fairer votes he should say so directly.

    An accurate reflection of public opinion would have seen 150 LibDem MPs in 2010, so even if those recent opinion polls which suggest we may have lost as much of half our support are correct it would still mean that a fair election system should expect to return 20 more LibDem MPs than now.

  • Abubakr Farrukh 13th Apr '18 - 10:25am

    I’m not a supporter of Lib Dem but I’m an academic researcher on electoral reforms. More precisely, I’m doing research on First Past the Post system in Pakistan. For years, I’ve been pondering on this system and realising how unjustified this system has been for my country. Your party’s example has further strengthened my belief. Lib Dem has been marginalized by this FPTP system.
    I want to further my research with your data and results in the preceding elections, with gaps between popular vote and the seats in the Commons.
    I would be obliged by your assistance.

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